Florida Gets Ugly

As the arrows fly, tomorrow’s primary promises to foreshadow a gruesome general election, reports Lois Romano.

As Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich careen around Florida on the eve of Tuesday’s Republican presidential primary, nasty personal attacks have defined the contest in its final frantic hours—setting the stage for what will surely be an ugly general election.

The Republicans kicked off the day in Jacksonville by sniping at each other on the morning talk shows, with Romney addressing whether his surge in the polls is based on attacks rather than on substance.

“Well, there’s no question politics ain’t bean bags. The speaker has been attacking me all over the state in ways that are really extraordinary,” Romney said crisply.

And then Romney couldn’t resist taking his own swipe. “The fact is, he worked with hundreds of people in Washington, and only a handful of people are willing to support him,” he added.

A few minutes later, the former House speaker reiterated for Good Morning America his ongoing claim that his opponent is fundamentally dishonest. “I think Romney’s problem is that the big truth beats the big lie,” Gingrich said. “He misleads the entire country on his voting record.”

With 50 delegates at stake in this winner-take-all primary state, the race has taken on urgency. Romney was dealt a blow in South Carolina and needs this win to remain viable. Gingrich, whose feisty insurgent campaign has appealed to conservative and Tea Party voters, needs to show that his South Carolina trouncing of Romney wasn’t a fluke.

At least $20 million has been spent on the Florida contest, the lion's share on negative television ads, put up by Romney or the super PACs supporting him. One particularly powerful Romney spot that is still crowding the airways consists of only the 1997 video clip of Tom Brokaw reporting on then-Speaker Gingrich’s House reprimand for an ethics violation. You wouldn’t know it was an ad, save for Romney appearing at the end saying that he approved the message.

The former Massachusetts governor has conceded that his campaign “didn’t respond well” to attacks in South Carolina and needed a new strategy.

That hasn’t been Romney’s problem in Florida, where he has unrelentingly continued to pummel Gingrich even though recent polls show him with a double-digit lead. In fact, he seems to be getting harsher as the vote gets closer.

Romney has portrayed Gingrich as unstable, taken aim at his failures as speaker, sought to diminish his claims that he was close to Ronald Reagan, and consistently reminded voters that Gingrich was a consultant to Freddie Mac, the controversial mortgage lender. On Sunday night, at a packed rally in Pompano Beach, Romney ridiculed the one thing Gingrich has always taken pride in: his intellect.

“Well, I guess the question is, what are those big ideas that he’s battling for? We keep hearing him talk about fundamental change and big ideas. What are they? A colony on the moon?” Romney shouted, his usually perfect hair falling onto his face.

“He is the same old Newt Gingrich. What you’re seeing on TV as you see him flail around and attack me is exactly what you saw back in the '90s, which led to him being reprimanded and ultimately, if you will, pushed out of the speaker position by his own fellow Republicans.”

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The Romney campaign started the week with an email to reporters poking fun at Gingrich for his self-aggrandizing statements about himself, entitled “An Overdose of Grandiose.” For his part, Gingrich has been calling Romney a liar, and ratcheting up his claim that the former Massachusetts governor is not conservative enough for the GOP base—and therefore unelectable. On Sunday, he called Romney a "pro-abortion, pro-gun-control, pro-tax-increase liberal.”

Over the weekend he also produced Michael Reagan, a radio commentator and son of President Ronald Reagan, to attest to Gingrich’s ties to the conservative icon. “The people who say he wasn’t there weren’t there,” Reagan told a rally in Tampa. “Newt was there at the beachhead at the beginning of all of this [in the 1980] Reagan Revolution.”

The latest poll by Quinnipiac, released Monday morning, shows Romney with a 14-point lead over Gingrich (43–29 percent); Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, both of whom have left the state, were tied at 11 percent.

Although a big Romney win Tuesday could signal the near end of the primary season, Gingrich has vowed to take the fight to the convention. Republicans fear that dragging on the bruising process any further will damage the eventual nominee in the general-election race against Barack Obama. Even before this latest round of fighting in Florida, a Washington Post/ABC survey showed that both men were regarded negatively by a high percentage of the national electorate. And it’s only January.